In his article, ‘What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?’, Jerome MurphyO’Gonnor proposes that Jesus was troubled by contradictions in the will of God as he understood it. According to Luke, whose report includes the original tradition, Jesus resolved his difficulties in prayer and his face lit up. The glory that Peter and the others saw (Luke 9:32) was the radiant joy that accompanies the resolution of a terrible perplexity (Murphy-O’Connor 1987:18).
As a true Westerner, Murphy-O’Connor turns to science, ‘which offers the best illustrations’. Jesus’ flash of insight can be compared with scientific insights like those of Newton. No one can explain them; they just happen (p. 19). And the face lights up! How curious that biblical scholars who object to relying upon contemporary Mediterranean cultural information to shed light on the ancient Mediterranean world apparently find no difficulty using modern Western experience to illuminate ancient Mediterranean experience.
Murphy-O’Connor’s literary analyses and conclusions inspired a doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC), revised and recently published by Barbara Reid. Her source and redaction-critical study traced the history of the tradition behind Luke and sought secondarily to discover ‘what kind of event, if any, in the life of the historical Jesus gave rise to it’ (Reid 1993:29).
Reid’s research isolated a primitive tradition preserved by Luke (9:28-36b), who embellished it with personal composition and redaction of Marcan tradition:
Eight days [later] taking with him Peter and John and James, he went up the mountain to pray. The appearance of his face was altered. And behold, two men who appearing in glory spoke of his ‘exodus’ which he was about to fulfil in Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him saw his glory and the two men standing with him. And when they parted from him Jesus was found alone.
(From Luke 9:28-36b, translated by Reid 1993:33-34, from her version of the Greek at 73-74).